Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction Critical Essays

Introduction

Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction

The genre of nineteenth-century historical fiction includes novels and romances written about the distant past, about the recent past, or about the time period contemporary with an author's experience. Although they agree about the general characteristics of the genre, critics debate the degree to which historical accuracy or realistic representation should be present in a work of historical fiction. Depending on the novelist's motives, historical fiction may emphasize realistic depiction of historical facts throughout the novel, truthful portrayal of the spirit of an age, or correctness in the representation of specific historical movements or themes. Nineteenth-century novelists, including Sir Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Benito Pérez Galdós, wrote historical fiction in order to demonstrate similarities between the past and the present, to initiate social reform, to change readers' views about historical persons or events, and to supplement and encourage the formal study of history.

Most critics agree that Sir Walter Scott became "the father of the historical novel" in 1814 when he wrote Waverly, a novel about life in the Scottish borderlands. Waverly achieved enormous popular and critical success and sparked the public's interest in history, and many commentators hold it as the standard by which historical fiction ought to be judged. Scott followed Waverly with several more historical romances, including Ivanhoe (1819). As the popularity of the genre increased, so did the critics' and the public's desire for historical accuracy. Scott and his numerous imitators were criticized by essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle and others who frowned on novels written solely for the sake of readers' amusement. Many commentators held that authors had a responsibility to ensure factual accuracy within their work. In 1846, George Henry Lewes praised Scott's achievement in Waverly, stating that "no grave historian ever succeeded better in painting the character of the epoch." Throughout the 1830s and 1840s readers and critics alike began to look to historical fiction as a necessary complement to historical studies. Novels produced at this time include Bulwer-Lytton's extensively researched Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes (1835) and Harriet Martineau's The Hour and the Man (1841), both of which provided detailed evaluations of historical figures and eras. However, there was growing concern among scholars that with so many historical novels being written, readers would start to view historical fiction as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, the formal study of history. Concurrent with these developments was the trend among some authors to write novels about contemporary social issues, with the aim of realistically representing the problems in Victorian England. Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), for example, examines the cruelty experienced by children in workhouses. During the 1850s and 1860s, the public's interest in the genre dwindled, partly in response to the high volume of historical novels being published. Similarly, critical sentiment toward historical fiction ranged from skepticism to hostility, although highly esteemed historical novels such as Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Eliot's Romola (1862) were still being published. By the 1860s, as James Simmons has written, "the vogue for historical fiction had expended itself."

Many scholars have noted that in nineteenth-century America historical novelists often romanticized aspects of the past to some degree in order to accomplish their aims. Some American novelists wrote about colonial America in an attempt, some critics have argued, to redefine or to reemphasize nineteenth-century national values. According to Beverly Seaton, many novels about the colonial period assured white readers of their racial superiority. William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee (1835), for example, centered around conflicts with Native Americans in which white settlers are depicted as virtuous while Native Americans are rendered as cruel and dishonest. Novels such as Paul Leicester Ford's Janice Meredith (1899) and S. Weir Mitchell's Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897) incorporate analyses of religious fanaticism in colonial times in order to remind nineteenth-century readers of the importance of supporting liberalism in organized religion. Pauline Hopkins, in Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1899), uses the motifs of traditional nineteenth-century romances—such as ending the novel with the heroine's happy marriage—in order to interest both African American and white readers. After capturing the attention of this larger audience, Hopkins then focuses on the realities of African American history. Still other novelists, rather than detailing specific movements, events, or themes, chose to characterize a time and place, as Hawthorne does with his depiction of seventeenth-century Puritan New England in The Scarlet Letter (1850).

Critics continue to debate the definition and attributes of historical fiction. Harry E. Shaw has maintained that a "minimal" definition of the genre is necessary to accommodate the variety of views on history. Brander Matthews has claimed that novelists who wrote about their own time period produced the most "trustworthy" historical fiction. Joseph Turner has admitted that defining the genre is problematic, and has categorized historical fiction in terms of the novelist's treatment of past. Modern scholars have also studied nineteenth-century historical fiction with a view to understanding how each novelist addressed the social issues of his or her day through his or her treatment of the past.